Justin Masterson contract extension talks tabled; Ubaldo Jimenez' price falling

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Indians will have to spend on pitching before too long, one way or another. Which way is best?

Two separate but not unrelated pieces of information, pertaining to the Indians and their starting rotation for 2014 and beyond:

1) Discussions of a multiyear extension for Justin Masterson have been tabled.

Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer reports, "It's believed those talks have gained little, if any, traction." An arbitration hearing between the two sides is scheduled for February 20th, and the focus now shifts to seeing if the two sides can agree on a contract figure for 2014 somewhere between the $11.8 million Masterson is asking for and the $8.05 million the Indians have offered.

2) The price for Ubaldo Jimenez may have dropped all the way below $40 million.

Jon Heyman was on MLB Tonight Monday night and said Jimenez is now seeking something like 3 years, $39 million, and that the Toronto Blue Jays might be the team to give that to him.

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Calling off conversations about a long-term deal for Masterson does not necessarily mean such a deal could not still be agreed upon before Masterson hits free agency at the end of the 2014 season, but it would seem to make such an outcome less likely.

The market for starting pitching is hard to define right now:

Masahiro Tanaka got 7 years, $155 million (and he can opt out after four years if he wants). That's one of the 20 richest MLB contracts ever handed out, all for a pitcher who's never thrown a Major League pitch. Those terms may have convinced Masterson's side that he's worth more than they originally thought. The Tribe front office, on the other hand, probably doesn't love seeing that kind of money getting handed out to pitchers.

Days later, Matt Garza, seen by most as the second-best pitcher out there, and expected by prominent sources to get something like 5 years, $85 million (I pegged him at 5 years, $75 million), instead settled for 4 years, $50 million (with a vesting option for $13 million in 2018). I don't know of anyone who predicted Tanaka would get more than $100 million more than Garza, but that's what happened.

If Masterson has a 2014 like his 2013, he'll be in higher demand than Garza was, and depending on what happens with extension talks for potential free agents Max Scherzer, James Shield, and Jon Lester, Masterson could find himself one of the two best arms available. If Masterson becomes a free agent, I think re-signing him will take more than the Indians will be will to pay. In short, I don't think Masterson pitches for the Indians beyond 2014.

The Indians should re-sign Jimenez instead.

In the same post linked to above, I predicted that Ubaldo would get 4 years, $56-60 million. That was too rich for my blood, in terms of what the Indians should be willing to offer him, given their payroll, but if Heyman's report is true, and he can now be had on just a 3-year deal, for no more than $13 million a year, the Indians should go for it.

The scary thing about long-term deals isn't really the annual salary, it's the years (especially for pitchers). I think Masterson will get a 5-year deal at some point, and I'd be very uneasy about such a long commitment, even for a pitcher who has consistently thrown ~200 innings. I think Jimenez is riskier in a given season, but I'd rather be locked in to him for 3 years, than Masterson for 5.

More importantly, while either scenario means the Indians have a pitcher signed for big money in 2015 and 2016, only re-signing Jimenez means the Indians have both of them at the same time again.The Indians are coming off 92 wins and their first playoff appearance in six years. Fans took note of the team as the season went on, leading to strong TV and radio ratings and a packed house for the Wild Card Game. The Indians look like they can contend again in 2014, but are probably a little short of a return trip to the postseason.

Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs ran through some numbers to see how much signing Jimenez (or Ervin Santana) would be likely to help each MLB team (based largely on the projected fifth starter they'd be replacing). The Indians come out with an additional 2.0 wins, more than almost every other team in baseball. The Indians are right at the point on the win curve where two extra wins are especially valuable, because unlike a team likely to go from 68 to 70 wins (missing the playoffs either way), or from 95 to 97 wins (making the playoffs either way), the Indians could be going form 87 to 89 wins, and there's a good chance that's the difference between making the playoffs and missing them.

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